Back at the dawn of the Web I was working on a Masters degree in English lit. I wrote winding, complex papers full of big important words. No one beyond the proverbial ivory tower would want to read them, but it didn’t matter. My intended audience didn’t live beyond those walls. When I started writing for the Web a few years later I had to turn all that learning on its head.
Effective writing — for content marketing, for the Web, for business and general communications — is clear, concise and compelling. You first want to hook your audience, but once they’re in, you need to make your point quickly and effectively or you’ll lose them. And if you lose them, you can’t drive them to act.
Effective writing is as much science as art. Adhere to these five principles, and you’ll be well on your way to making an impact with your audience.
5 essential rules to create compelling content
1. Make it easy to understand
As Steve Krug famously says, “don’t make me think.” While his context is overall Web usability, this applies directly to one of its most important pieces: content. Don’t make readers think. Effective writing should be clear, simple and easy to digest.
Here’s a trick: think of how you would explain your idea to an 8-year-old, and then write it down. You don’t need to stick to this verbatim in your final version (there are probably ideas your imaginary – or real – kid has no need to understand) but starting here helps you make your point in easy-to-digest language. It also helps you strip out unnecessary and distracting jargon. If the kid trick doesn’t work for you, simply imagine explaining to a layperson who knows nothing about the topic at hand.
2. Don’t use 10 words if you can say it in five
The exact numbers are arbitrary, but you get the point. Pull busy readers into focus quickly by saying what you mean clearly and succinctly. Make sentences brief and stick to one main point in each. Get rid of redundancy. Remove unnecessary words. This sometimes means cutting your original copy length in half.
There is an art to finely chiseled writing and, believe it or not, the process can be fun and enlightening.
3. Use a proven structure
On a macro level, make sure your content is organized. (Remember, content needs structure to achieve its goals.) Organized content is readable content. It pulls your audience through in an intuitive, seamless way.
For the purposes of content marketing, webpages and general business communications, structure also means getting to the main point quickly — before you do anything else. You need to grab your readers before they tune out or, worse yet, navigate away from the webpage or close the email.
A clean, clear structure is your friend. Starting with a defined framework also makes your job as a writer easier.
4. Make it scannable
When structuring content, keep in mind most readers will scan, not read.
The prevailing estimate is we each receive thousands of messages every day, and every one of them is vying for our attention. This means you first need to hook readers into looking at what you have to say. Equally important, once they’re there you need to make it easy for them to absorb your message quickly.
Here are some quick tips to make your content scannable:
- Make use of bullets, lists, pull quotes, even navigation, photos and infographics.
- Let headlines and subheads do some heavy lifting: they should convey key information while also enticing readers to learn more.
- Take care crafting link and caption copy. These words stand out on a page and are often what draw scanners to slow down and read. Make them not only pertinent but also compelling.
- People like lists. They’re scannable and make information easy to grasp. With the right headline (“Quick tips to make your content scannable” ring a bell?) they tell your audience what — and how much reading — to expect before they even start.
5. Stay on topic
Truly compelling content stays focused. The main point you’re trying to make should drive everything you write. Make examples interesting — even colorful — but on-point, and be sure to keep citations in a supporting role.
With the right attention to clarity, concision, structure and focus you’ll be in prime position to keep eyeballs on your content and effectively deliver your message.